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Pulitzer Prize winner discusses subtle means of oppression

Tue, Jun 17, 2014

Veteran journalist Douglas Blackmon uses his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by a New Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, to spark conversation on racism, poverty and the “injustice system” in the U.S.

Douglas Blackmon

Douglas Blackmon

After 30-plus years of historical research, Blackmon published his 2009 book detailing the accounts of former slaves from the 1860s to the 1940s, a time in the United States where, he says, the majority of African Americans were far from free.

“The age of neo-slavery returned with shocking force” with institutions such as sharecropping, chain gangs and mobile oppression, all of which continued to hold black Americans captive long after the 13th amendment was ratified, Blackmon said to an audience of approximately 250 at the Facing History and Ourselves’ Community Conversation May 8 at the Harold Washington Library.
Blackmon focused on his book, his interest in the topic and its larger significance in the world. His audience railed at modern injustices and ways to move past them. Talking about it as simply as possible, “plain” conversation, is a step toward shared understanding, he said.

“If you’re poor or black you can’t rely on the judicial system to treat you fairly or treat you right. The laws are still written in ways that disparately impact poor and black people more than others,” he said in a follow-up interview with StreetWise. “If you’re black or poor you’re likely to spend a lot more time in prison for the same crime than somebody would who’s not black or poor—those things are still happening.”

However, Blackmon said, the most significant way in which blacks are still being injured today reaches further back than the injustice of the current prison system. In his speech, Blackmon detailed the story of how he obtained the ability to attend college: a scholarship given to his grandfather by his employer at a mill factory. Children or grandchildren who showed promise in elementary school could receive scholarship money placed in a special fund for college.

“The way that things continue to injure people is through legacies like that,” he said. “I was the beneficiary of the fact that in the 1930’s there was a paper mill that gave hourly pay, benefits, healthcare and scholarships for children and grandchildren. A mill where, guess what kind of people weren’t allowed to work? Black people. I benefited from that invisibly without knowing it and people were injured in a way in the great competition of life —the descendants of the black families that lived on the same piece of property that my grandparents lived on.”

Growing up in Mississippi, it was legacies like this that motivated Blackmon to continue his work in raising awareness of the new forms that slavery assumed in the early- to mid-20 century. He described the experiences he had going to school in the state’s first integrated school building.

These memories were “the match that lit the flame,” Blackmon said. He didn’t know why kids from the all-white school hated him and his friends, or why blacks seemed to live a different lifestyle than he did. But the curiosity these memories inspired has led him to many hours digging through the hundreds of law cases at courthouses throughout the South, which he has used to write his book. In the process, he has informed people of the horrors that continue to take place due to the color of one’s skin.Slavery by Another Name

It was, in part, the color of Blackmon’s skin that led Denise Hamiltonperry to the discussion that night. After his interview on WVON earlier that day, she cleared her schedule to hear Blackmon speak.

“It all came from listening to a white man from Mississippi tell his story about living there,” she said. “I wanted to compare a white writer’s view with my own experiences and things that I have read that happened during that time. I was a high school student during the civil rights movement so I connected with a lot of it.”

Facing History and Ourselves works to help students connect historical events to their modern day lives. Along with their teacher training program that gives teachers the tools to do so, Facing History and Ourselves holds Community Conversation events to broaden the conversation to the public of Chicago.

“There’s so much power in engaging each other with what we see and think about our city,” said Associate program director Denise Gelp. “I think that’s what we want in our classrooms and sort of thinking about Chicago more broadly as a classroom to bring these conversations into the community.”

Mariah Woelfel
StreetWise Editorial Intern


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